[The dark side of the market economy] Drugs, weapons, cyberattack benefits… Welcome to the virtual black market, where purchases of all kinds of illicit products and services are made in cryptocurrency.

The trafficking of weapons or drugs did not wait for digital to exist, but new technologies offer it a new space to develop. Over the years, the dark web has become a marketplace for all kinds of illicit products and services: from cocaine to weapons of war, stolen credit card numbers, false papers or cyberattack benefits. This space is far from having a monopoly on illegal trade, but by its structure it has become one of the most internationalized and easily accessible places.

But what is the dark web? It is a very small part of the web that is accessible with specific browsers using particular protocols. Its main feature is to guarantee anonymity: when you surf there, no one knows what site you have been to, and the site itself does not know the identity of the user.

“The dark web offers an illusion of distance that allows you to walk around the equivalent of a black market place in a city like Rio de Janeiro, for example, but without risk to your physical integrity, then to be able to return home. in a fraction of a second by shutting down his computer, ”summarizes Nicolas Arpagian, director of cybersecurity strategy at Trend Micro, a firm specializing in cyberthreats.

There are several dark webs, such as Freenet, GNUnet, but the best known and by far the most used is TOR. It was invented by the US Navy to secure communications. It is made up of a set of sites which, instead of .com, .fr or .org, end in .onion, in reference to the vegetable since the TOR protocol imitates the successive layers of the onion which protects its heart. That is, our data in this case.

Access is very simple, just download the browser (TOR Browser). TOR is based on the classic Internet network, i.e. the boxes and networks of Internet service providers such as Orange or Bouygues, but it is made up of numerous servers which are gateways to its own network. The list of these servers is known. So your ISP may know you’ve been to the dark web, but they don’t have a clue what you did there.

On this network, we find the whole panoply of Internet sites: commercial and information sites, forums, social networks, etc. There are also major players such as Facebook and the BBC. It is indeed a space used in countries where freedom of expression is restricted, because it allows tracking to be avoided. But, logically, this infrastructure which protects so much anonymity is also a privileged place to offer anything that is illegal.

There is nothing illegal about the dark web in and of itself, and what is prohibited elsewhere is, in principle, also illegal. As on the classic Web, there are two types of merchant sites: online stores, like Decathlon’s on the regular Web, for example, and marketplaces where sellers and buyers meet, like on Leboncoin. Except here, the names rhyme more with “guns” or “drugs”.

Reputation issues are strategic. Because if on the ordinary Web we are less and less afraid of entering our credit card number on merchant sites like Amazon, Zalando or Fnac, which are identifiable structures, nothing like it on the dark Web. If you never receive the product or if it does not comply with the order, it is impossible to file a complaint because you have received a false health pass whose QR code does not work, for example. , even if we paid (very) dearly!

“When a merchant site appears on the dark Web, it tries to acquire a brand image, this involves ratings and comments,” explains Jean-François Perrat, specialist in digital geography at ENS Lyon. One of the main evaluation issues is the quality of the packaging. “Indeed, if the dark Web is a separate space, delivery does go through traditional infrastructures, such as La Poste. A weapon can be sent in parts. And the drug needs to be well packaged to prevent it from being spotted in the mail channels.

Delivery can be done at home but, depending on the type of product, dormant letterboxes are frequently used. Lists of such boxes are communicated and updated on dark web sites or by the vendors themselves, and the PTT passkey to open them is a widely offered product for sale. Again, the challenge is to build trust. “Even if it is illegal, the consumer asks only to be reassured,” recalls Nicolas Arpagian, also author of La cybersecurity (coll. Que sais-je?, PUF).

As in legal exchanges, a trusted third party is frequently used. Buyers and sellers therefore go through an anonymous person, called an “escrow”, who receives payment from the buyer and the merchandise from the seller, and takes care of delivering both by taking a commission. in passing. This mechanism is also based on an escrow rating system. A set of devices close to the classic platform economy, on which Leboncoin or Amazon embody this trusted third party in the face of an often unknown seller.

Where the rules of the dark web differ is in the evolution of sites. “Businesses are not sustainable there, the more visibility an actor raises, the more he arouses the interest of the investigation and police services, and the more he runs the risk of being arrested,” underlines Nicolas Arpagian.

In fact, the various police forces around the world regularly dismantle illicit commercial sites, thanks in part to important international cooperation. Thus, the lifespan of the sites is very short. According to a review by Aleph, a specialist in this field, the average lifespan of a site on TOR is seven and a half months. When surveyed in early 2021, 88% of sites were less than a year old. Police operations are far from the main reason. The sites are often amateur, managed by a single person and therefore very fragile. The world of the dark web is changing, actors appear regularly and then disappear after a few months, others grow and are sometimes shut down by the police, etc.

The dark web is mostly a relatively small space. “On TOR, worldwide, we have 110,000 sites,” says an executive from Aleph, who offers a paid search engine on this network for official services. By comparison, there are nearly 2 billion on the standard Web. But, above all, “it is estimated that 60 to 70% of the sites on TOR are mirrors,” adds this observer. These mirror sites copy an existing site on the dark web in order to dupe the internet user and rake in the proceeds of a fictitious sale. These mirrors are difficult to locate, because on TOR the domain name is a sequence of more than 50 random characters. They never last long though, as online reputation quickly unmasks them, but in the meantime they have been able to rake in profits. In addition to these mirrors, there are classic scams, called “scams”, these do not copy anything but never had any back-store merchandise.

Another common scam: “A person opens an online store, honors his orders, thus gains consumer confidence and starts to gain weight, then stops everything at a time when activity is high without fulfilling orders and leaves with the amount of the costs. sales ”, explains Jean-François Perrat. As anonymity is guaranteed, the operation may be repeated several times.

Beyond these scams, real business takes place on the dark web. “TOR is made up of 20,000 or 25,000 active sites,” notes the Aleph executive. The only figures available on the scale of sales come from the dismantling of the sites. The industry giant, DarkMarket, which was shut down by Europol earlier this year, had 2,400 sellers, 320,000 transactions have taken place since its inception for a cumulative amount of 140 million euros. Stopped in 2019, Wall Street Market had 5,400 sellers and 1.15 million customer accounts. Investigators found in its premises more than 500,000 euros in cash and cryptocurrency accounts to the tune of several hundred thousand bitcoins and moneros.

Cryptocurrencies are indeed the currency of exchange in force on the dark web, because you do not give your credit card codes to a criminal. Bitcoin is dominant but not exclusive. According to Chainalysis, a start-up specializing in blockchain analysis, annual cryptocurrency exchanges for criminal activity on the dark web are estimated at around $ 1.5 billion.

On the product side, if everything is present, drugs occupy a major place. A Europol report estimated that 62% of illicit offers on the dark web were drugs or medicines in 2017. The big development underway concerns the ordering of cyber attacks, which is experiencing very significant growth. Cybercriminals perform all of the service for the customer. The latter may thus have no technical skills: he just indicates the name of an account on a social network that he wants to hack or the address of a site that he wants to overload with requests to make it inoperative, etc. .

This movement illustrates a relative “democratization” of this network, combined with the appearance of certain search engines allowing to find the right site without being an insider. The dark web thus constitutes a space that allows illegal merchants to reach out to a large audience in a very internationalized space.

It is by definition very difficult to measure the illicit economy, but above all to draw its limits. Estimates of the size of the underground economy therefore vary from simple to double, and above all encompass quite different realities: undeclared work, under-declaration of turnover by certain companies, informal jobs, illegal production, etc. In the case of France, INSEE estimates that the “unobserved economy” represents 68 billion euros, or 3.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). But, to a large extent, this corresponds to corporate fraud, mainly VAT, for a little over 52 billion. The smuggling would represent only 600 million euros. Counting methodologies also vary by country, but an OECD study looked at the case of Italy and the only illegal production there. The Organization estimates that this represents 0.9% of Italy’s GDP and that it is mainly due to drugs (0.6%) and prostitution (0.2%).

It is by definition very difficult to measure the illicit economy, but above all to draw its limits. Estimates of the size of the underground economy therefore vary from simple to double, and above all encompass quite different realities: undeclared work, under-declaration of turnover by certain companies, informal jobs, illegal production, etc. In the case of France, INSEE estimates that the “unobserved economy” represents 68 billion euros, or 3.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). But, to a large extent, this corresponds to corporate fraud, mainly VAT, for a little over 52 billion. The smuggling would represent only 600 million euros. Counting methodologies also vary by country, but an OECD study looked at the case of Italy and the only illegal production there. The Organization estimates that this represents 0.9% of Italy’s GDP and that it is mainly due to drugs (0.6%) and prostitution (0.2%).

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